When Jeff Williams was a kid, he was forced to be creative with food. His father was a warehouse manager for a major supermarket company, and when his union would call for a strike, the family would go long stretches without any income. There wasn’t much money to put food on the table. Jeff’s parents often went without meals, and for Jeff and his sister, there was something they called ditalini soup. It was a can of tomato sauce filled three times with water, a few ounces of ditalini noodles, and a couple of sprigs of green onion. It didn’t provide many calories, but the entire family could eat a meal for less than a dollar. As simple as it sounds, the inventive meal is one Jeff still enjoys to this day, though he says he has made numerous improvements to the recipe over the years.
Jeff describes those times with an interesting term: “food insecure,” which is defined as, “lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” You might be surprised who that term applies to. Roughly 90 percent of homes that are food insecure have at least one working adult, and most of them do not qualify for government assistance. And in Tarrant County, 34 percent of people fit that description. However, Jeff has come up with a way to help, one meal at a time.
His passion for food, sparked during the ditalini soup years, grew when he got a job in a restaurant as a teenager. He was a server, busboy, dishwasher, cook, host—if you can name a job in a restaurant, he did it. But there was something else sparked by the days his dad was on strike—the feeling of what it’s like to be hungry and the satisfaction of a good meal when a good meal might be hard to come by.
As an adult, Jeff branched out and found his way into the information technology (IT) industry. He started his own IT business in Southern California, where his met his wife, Julie. While his business became successful, he found himself thinking about food and even toyed with the idea of opening his own restaurant. One day in 2003, shortly after he and Julie got married, God spoke to him about food. “I felt like God told me I would feed people,” he says. “I had always wanted to open a restaurant, and this felt like confirmation that I was to leave IT and work with food.” He even thought, What if we opened a restaurant with a menu that had no set prices? People who couldn’t afford a meal could still get one. He told the idea to his wife, but it took some convincing. “I think she thought I was crazy when I first told her,” he says. “Most people thought I was crazy. There wasn’t anyone else doing it.”
It seemed like he couldn’t get very many people excited about his vision. The idea remained just that, an idea. Then in 2005, Julie’s mom moved to Southlake, and Jeff and Julie decided to join her. “We wanted to live in a different state for a while since my wife and I had lived in Southern California all our lives,” he says. They made the move and visited a church Julie’s mom had found—Gateway. Still in the early years of the church, it was bigger than what they were used to. However, they felt right at home in their Gateway Group. “The whole reason we fell in love with Gateway was because of our group,” says Jeff.
Jeff began slowly returning to the culinary world and taught cooking lessons at Central Market. That’s when he started to dream. In fact, it was in a dream that God gave him a clearer vision of a pay-what-you-can restaurant. “I saw this restaurant with all different types of people in it and there weren’t any prices on the menu,” he says. “It confirmed the word God had given me years before about feeding people.” He had joined an additional Gateway Group, this one devoted to business leaders, and he brought up the dream along with his unique restaurant idea. Instead of falling on deaf ears, there seemed to be some excitement.
After some prayer, Jeff and Julie decided to move forward with the idea and put together a plan, and in June 2012 their restaurant, Taste Community Project, incorporated as a nonprofit in Texas. Later that year, they raised $90,000 at a fundraiser dinner and the plan was underway.
Jeff had a certain vision in mind for the place. If someone comes in and doesn’t have money for food, they get the same good food, service, and atmosphere as a diner who can pay a little extra for their meal. That way, the cost is offset by those who can pay more. At Taste Community Project, everyone can get a high-quality dining experience with the feeling of dignity and quality. In fact, on a recent afternoon, two homeless men sat at a table next to two well-dressed, upper-middle class women, and the two tables traded conversation and laughs throughout the meal.
The atmosphere—on par with all the subtly hip restaurants in the Near Southside neighborhood where Taste Community Project is located—is matched by the food. The 100-year-old building has been transformed into a modern space with lots of natural light that shines on a smartly designed wall of potted flowers. Near the open kitchen, there’s a big table where people who come in alone can sit with others, and worship music plays on the stereo. Jeff acts as the head chef, and in addition to leading a mostly volunteer staff, he creates the seasonal menu, which features six appetizers, six entrees, and several desserts. There’s even a kids’ menu.
It took several years to find the right location, renovate the space, and open for business. The restaurant’s first meal was a Thanksgiving lunch in 2017. But it was only days after opening that Jeff knew the restaurant had become a success. His eyes start to water as he tells the story. “Someone asked me how I would know the restaurant was successful,” he says. “I told them, ‘If it changed the life of one person.’”
In December last year, a homeless man came in. He had been a pastor but for some reason he wasn’t anymore. He was a little older and appeared to be a little frail. He sat down, had a meal, and asked to see Jeff and Julie. They came to his table and he said eating at their restaurant was the first time he had felt God’s presence and truly felt loved in a long time. He asked if he could pray for them, which was odd because Jeff and Julie tend to do most of the praying when the opportunity comes up in the restaurant. He said he hadn’t prayed in 10 years but he began to pray right there in the restaurant. “That day I knew it was a success,” says Jeff, “because as he prayed, I realized my life was changed.”
Jeff and Julie attend the Southlake Campus.
To learn more about Taste Community Project, visit tasteproject.org.